ST. LOUIS -- It only took five weeks for Kyle McClellan to return to pitching the eighth inning for the Cardinals. This time, though, he pitched the first seven as well.
McClellan turned in the longest outing of his brief career as a Major League starter, stifling the scuffling Brewers en route to a 3-1 Cardinals win at Busch Stadium on Sunday. Formerly one of the Cards' top setup relievers, McClellan made his sixth big league start his best yet.
"I got a lot of ground-ball outs," McClellan said. "They hit it at people. ... Today, I got them to hit the ball on the ground. They hit my pitch, and they hit it at guys."
Colby Rasmus and Nick Punto delivered more than enough offense for McClellan, who improved to 5-0 in his first season in the rotation. Brewers lefty Chris Narveson didn't provide St. Louis with a lot of chances, but the Cards did enough to win for the 18th time in 27 games.
The inning that ultimately undid Narveson and the Brewers was a strange one. Punto led off with a single to right, and Tyler Greene reached on an infield hit. McClellan attempted to sacrifice the runners over, but instead he popped up to the pitcher. Narveson dropped the ball, but he was ruled to have done so intentionally, so it simply went as an infield popup.
Ryan Theriot followed with a comebacker that might have started an inning-ending double play. However, when Narveson looked to third base, no one was covering the bag. He instead took the out at first, advancing both runners. That set up Rasmus, who lined a double into the right-field corner for the game's first runs.
"We tried to go in, but that may not have been the right situation to go in," said Narveson, formerly a Cardinals farmhand. "I guess if you're ahead or in more of an even count, he might be a little more defensive. He was probably pretty aggressive there, knew he was getting a fastball. He capitalized on it."
It was plenty for McClellan, who was a bit shaky early in the game but came on strong. A broken-bat single, an error and a walk loaded the bases in the first, but McClellan got Yuniesky Betancourt to pop up. He worked around a one-out double in the second, a two-out walk in the third and a two-on, one-out jam in the fourth.
His game appeared to pivot on one play. With runners on first and second in the fourth, Narveson hit a ground ball up the middle. Greene threw to first for one out, and Albert Pujols looked to second with thoughts of a rundown for the final out of the inning. He saw Jonathan Lucroy breaking for home, however, and made the heads-up throw to the plate. Catcher Yadier Molina tagged Lucroy and the inning was over.
From there, McClellan cruised. He retired 13 in a row before allowing a single to Prince Fielder to open the ninth. McClellan induced 14 ground-ball outs against seven in the air. Fielder came around to score with reliever Eduardo Sanchez on the mound, but Fernando Salas came in to strike out Rickie Weeks for the final out of the ballgame.
"I felt like I got stronger as I went on," McClellan said. "My curveball got better. Early on, I just threw mostly fastballs, the first three or four innings. Then I started throwing my cutter a little bit, my changeup and curveball."
McClellan's outing capped a tremendous weekend for the Cardinals' starting rotation. The club's Nos. 3-5 starters -- Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and McClellan -- turned in three of the club's best pitching performances of the season against the Brewers. They combined for 25 innings, two runs and 12 hits in the three-game series.
The Cardinals improved to 20-15 on the season, equaling their season-best mark at five games over .500. They remain 1 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Reds in the National League Central. St. Louis has won or split eight straight series.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.